How The Real World, OJ Simpson and Kim Kardashian paved the way to our tabloidized lives on social.
Kim Kardashian once described taking photos of herself as the “the purpose of life.” From the reality show which she helped launch, to her sisters following in her footsteps, the tabloid-like buzz the Kardashians create about themselves has penetrated our culture. Millions of their followers aim to do the same on a micro-scale.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which has just launched its 15th season, wasn’t the first reality show, but its enormous influence has massified what can only be called the “tabloidification” of popular culture. As hired camera crews and co-conspiring paparazzi document their every move, millions tune in to watch the mundane minutia of their lives. Inter-familial drama, a trip to the salon, clothes shopping or just lounging about their palatial Hollywood Hills homes. It’s supposed to look spontaneous, but we know it’s staged. The audience obliges, only too happy to suspend their disbelief. The show, and their massively-followed social channels, serve as blueprints to millions of fans who want to get rich — billionaire rich — by just doing ordinary things and documenting it.
J.G. Ballard, in a 1987 interview with i-D magazine, predicted this long before social media:
“We’ll all be simultaneously actor, director and screenwriter in our own soap opera. People will start screening themselves. They will become their own TV programmes.”
Reality television as we know it today exploded in popularity in the 90s with shows like MTV’s The Real World. It has a simple premise: a cast of young adults live together in a new city while their interpersonal relationships are recorded on camera, twenty-four hours a day. The opening narration during the first 28 seasons went like this:
“This is the true story…of seven strangers…picked to live in a house…(work together) and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real…The Real World.”
The producers of The Real World chose their cast specifically with creating drama in mind. Clashing personalities were exploited and amplified by the showrunners. They introduced tension with competition and elimination, pitting cast members against each other.
Another seminal moment in reality television history was O.J. Simpson’s trial. Kicked off with 90-minute car chase, and culminating in a nationally-televised trial, it gave future reality show producers the formula which would guide them for decades to come. Danger, sex, identity politics –it was all there. Robert Kardashian, O.J.’s friend and defense attorney, was of course Kim Kardashian’s father. He unknowingly paved the way for her.
O.J.’s trial dominated ratings, interrupting regular programming. Networks saw the value in this real-life drama, and sought to recreate it in different settings. The Real World was followed by shows like Big Brother, Survivor, The Great Race, Duck Dynasty and Master Chef. All shows with “real” people acting “real” within the tropes of reality television which we all know by now. That false sense of urgency, the threat of elimination, the rivalry — all made more compelling because they’re shot using documentary-style filmmaking and surveillance-style footage. They appear real. We know they’re not. But we don’t care.
Enter social media. MySpace may have been an early forerunner to Ballard’s concept of having our “own TV programme”, but the technology wasn’t quite there yet. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Youtube now have that capability. The Kardashians’ reality show now has its own extensions on their own social channels, where they document even more of their everyday lives for millions of followers.
The earliest forms of reality television were created by professionals, with access to professional equipment. Non-linear editing in the 90s made shows like The Real World and Big Brother possible because of how efficient it became to collate and curate thousands of hours of footage. Two decades later, technology has been democratized, and the same non-linear editing tools and cameras are now in the palms of our hands. Channels are no longer solely accessible by large corporations. With the click of a button we can drop the next episode on our channels, and a global audience has access to it instantly.
Just as television networks monetize their shows by selling advertising against an audience, social media also allows these new personal “TV channels” to monetize their content. Pre, mid and post roll ads run in video content on all the social platforms. Brands sponsor content on channels if the audience is large enough and the demographic is the right fit. In a way, the American Dream has shifted from the old ideal of class mobility to “I can just be myself, do random things, and get paid for it.” Just like the Kardashians.
Industries have popped up to cater to this new breed of mini media mogul. Professional photographers offer their services for social media pics. There are “face yoga” classes for people to learn how to look more relaxed in their selfies. People hire camera crews and fake paparazzi to document their vacations and parties. Social media has become the outlet for this staged spontaneity, with carefully curated content which looks real, but is obviously not.
Tabloid spreads — like the kind we used to only see in supermarket checkout lines, behind the lurid covers of The National Enquirer and Hello! Magazine — are no longer populated by royalty and A-list celebrities, whose vacations and marital disputes were scrutinized and obsessed over by the public. They’re now being recreated by the masses on their own personal TV channels, in the hope that they too will be able to get rich quick by sharing the minutia of their lives. We have people monetizing their domestic disputes, their children, their pets, even themselves sleeping.
We’re living in a templatized reality designed by television show producers. It’s a great irony that the real world, as presented on our own personal TV channels, is an imitation of The Real World. If only we were all that interesting to watch.
I am a digital strategist living in Los Angeles. I also write fiction, and my book NEON EMPIRE is coming out in early 2019 from Rare Bird Books/CCB. It’s a near-future thriller about influencers and ad technology gone awry. I have previous fiction bylines in 3AM Magazine, Word Riot, Litro and others. You can find me on Twitter @drewminh and minhim.al.